U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera kicks off the 2016-17 Wednesday Night Live series

Story by RCAH student Christina Igl.

On September 28, 2016, U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera opened the first Wednesday Night Live of the 2016-2017 season in RCAH.

Director of the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU and Professor Anita Skeen welcomed both students and community members to the packed RCAH Theater with some opening remarks: “We are delighted to welcome U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera to open our fall season in the classroom, in our co-curricular activities, and in our collaboration with community partners because his work is about the appreciation of multiple histories, traditions, and voices. . . .  He places a high value on the arts, as does RCAH, and the way in which words shape our conscience and our culture, the way all of our acts are political; like Walt Whitman, he hears American singing.”

In 2015 Juan Felipe Herrera was appointed the 21st United States Poet Laureate and is the first Latino to hold the position. He is the author of thirty books including everything from poetry collections to short stories and young adult novels to picture books for children.

What many thought was going to be a quiet poetry reading turned into an interactive fiesta de poesía when Herrera performed his poem “How to make world unity salsa” from his book, 187 reasons mexicanos can’t cross the border: undocuments, 1971-2007. “I want to get everyone involved,” he said, “it’s about all of us!”

Herrera emphasized “letting the words fly and crash into each other” as a preface to his poem “One by one,” which tells the story of children crossing the border into the United States. As a social activist, Herrera urged students and community members to value their communities and voices and to respond to what is happening around them, making the extra effort to support others.

Herrera draws upon his experiences as a son of migrant farmers in California as well as the lessons he learned as a student to write his poetry. One lesson in particular struck sophomore RCAH student, Katie Harger, who is also majoring in Spanish with a Teacher Education certification. “[Herrera’s] third grade teacher told him ‘You have a beautiful voice’ and that message stuck with him through all of this time. Herrara was constantly saying ‘Use that voice! Write that poem!’ and it reminded me that I have to actively think about the impact I can have as a teacher,” Harger said.

Herrera explained that he didn’t start out to be a poet, a writer, and award winner. He used his experiences, his voice, to spark change. He said, “You have to throw yourself into your writing in the midst of the storms.” After all, “A poem is so easy to give.”

Photos by RCAH student Samantha Kinjorski.

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